Ninety-five percent of Americans call distracted driving “extremely dangerous,” and federal campaigns to stop activities like texting behind the wheel (“U text. U drive. U pay.”) have been carried out by federal agencies as varied as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Yet, according to a new survey by Harvard Business School researchers, 87% of the commuters they interviewed still admitted to “multitasking” on their way to and from work.
The research, recently published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies and coauthored by Harvard Business School professor Raffaella Sadun and three other researchers, asked questions about the driving habits of 400 commuters who fell into the category of “knowledge worker”—meaning someone whose job is communicating ideas. A vast majority conceded that they’re guilty of being “engaged in at least one other activity while driving.” These other activities involved making phone calls (7.5% of the time), “planning events” (7%), reading emails (18%—or almost every fifth distraction), and replying to emails (9.5%).
According to government figures, 400,000 people are injured each year in accidents involving a distracted driver, though the actual number could be much higher, thanks to underreporting. As it happens, as driving distractions grow, operators of vehicles are becoming more careless. The NHTSA says the U.S. had about 43,000 car fatalities last year, the most since 2005, and the Governors Highway Safety Administration estimates 7,485 pedestrians were killed last year, compared to 6,711 in 2020—the highest number in 40 years.
What will it take to actually make driving safer? The authors don’t sound very optimistic that, in the digital age, people behind the wheel will quit using their phones. So they argue that car makers must design better safety features. Which may be a tall order: Apple just unveiled its next generation of CarPlay, which can be integrated onto every screen in the car; and it took the feds to convince Tesla to disable a feature that allowed occupants to play video games on the touchscreen while the car was in motion.
Their survey didn’t analyze car safety features. But, the authors write, that smart ideas worth considering might be adding eye-level monitors above the dash—or even rethinking the need for things to be visual at all, instead relying more on voice commands. Sadun and the other authors note that we’re always “on the clock” nowadays, especially while sitting captive in a car, dying to feel productive. With AI and automation all the industry rage, Sadun warns future commuters may pay even less attention to the road than ever before.
“The risk is that the promise of extensive automation may provide a false sense of security,” she tells HBS Working Knowledge. “Our findings suggest that some drivers are already easily distracted and unable to keep a safe level of engagement.”